Over the past few months, we’ve been breaking down the Jets’ undrafted rookies. However, we’ve also been looking at some of the veteran additions they’ve made since training camp opened, continuing today with former 49ers defensive end Pita Taumoepenu.
The 29-year old Taumoepenu was a sixth round pick out of Utah in 2017, but he has only played in 11 NFL games, recording just five tackles. However, he was the Defensive Player of the Year in the XFL earlier this year.
Taumoepenu took an incredible route to the NFL. He was originally a Tongan fruit farmer who moved to the USA at the age of 17. At that time he had never even seen football, but he was keen to get an opportunity and determined to figure out how to be successful at it. After watching some highlights of Clay Matthews, he decided he wanted a role where he could get after the quarterback.
Early on in his high school career, Taumoepenu recalls a game where he had four sacks despite not even knowing what a sack was or that it was any more significant than any other tackle. He ended his senior year as an all-state selection after racking up 25 sacks.
The start of his college career was interrupted by some complications with his paperwork and eligibility, but he enrolled at Utah as a zero-star recruit and eventually was able to play in seven games as a freshman. He had six tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
In his sophomore year, Taumoepenu had 17 tackles and 5.5 sacks and then as a junior he only posted nine tackles in 13 games but six of these were sacks as he established himself as a pass rush specialist.
In 2016, he started four games and ended the year with 34 tackles, seven sacks and nine tackles for loss. He was named as an honorable mention all-Pac 12 selection.
Taumoepenu was invited to the scouting combine and played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl where he recorded a sack, establishing himself as a potential late round selection in the 2017 draft.
The 49ers selected Taumoepenu in the sixth round and he made their roster as a rookie, although he only played in a special teams role in two games and was inactive the rest of the time.
In 2018, he was released in final cuts but went onto the practice squad and was promoted late in the season. He eventually played in four games and recorded three tackles.
Taumoepenu didn’t play in 2019 after signing with Arizona in May. He got hurt in preseason and was released with an injury settlement, then spent time on Seattle’s practice squad.
In 2020, he signed a futures deal with Seattle but was cut in May. They then brought him back for the last preseason game before releasing him again. He ended up on Atlanta’s practice squad and was elevated to play in one game for them, recording two tackles.
In 2021, Taumoepenu signed for Denver in May and spent most of the year on their practice squad. He made four appearances for them but didn’t record any stats. He was without a team in 2022.
Taumoepenu decided to try and make an impact in the XFL instead and did just that with the Vegas Vipers, despite beginning the year behind Vic Beasley on the depth chart. He ended up with 7.5 sacks and a league-high four forced fumbles in 10 games to win the league’s defensive player of the year award.
Despite working out for multiple teams since then, Taumoepenu was without a team until the New York Jets added him last week.
Now let’s take a look at what Taumoepenu brings to the table, divided into categories.
Taumoepenu is undersized and lacks length but he impressed with some of his numbers at the scouting combine. His 40-yard dash (4.67) was the second-best among defensive ends and his three cone drill (6.91) was also second-best. His short shuttle was sixth-best. His strength and explosiveness numbers were below average, though.
He tried to improve upon his combine numbers at his pro day but other than adding an inch to his vertical, essentially just posted the same numbers again.
Taumoepenu has primarily lined up on the line of scrimmage outside the tackle, sometimes standing up and sometimes with his hands in the dirt. He’s also lined up as a middle linebacker at the line in some rush packages and to spy mobile quarterbacks. He’s a natural edge rusher though, and often employed in a situational rush role.
Taumoepenu is a player who rushes with urgency, is relentless in pursuit and will keep battling until the end of a play.
With only four starts in his college career, Taumoepenu hadn’t really established an ability to handle a starter’s workload when he was drafted but he did regularly play over 50 snaps in a full-time role when he was in the XFL.
Within a situational rush role, Taumoepenu has proven that he can generate pressure at a high rate at every level other than in regular season NFL action where he hasn’t played much. In preseason action, he only had two sacks in 13 games, but did have a good pressure rate.
Taumoepenu’s main strength is his get-off, especially when he can guess the snap count. He shows a good ability to get around tackles on outside speed rushes.
He’s less adept at rushing with power, as he can often struggle to get off a block once the offensive tackle gets his hands on him.
Taumoepenu is not known for his run defense and he has been regarded as someone who can struggle to hold up at the point of attack and get off blocks.
He did seem to show some improvement in this area in some of his preseason film and at the XFL level, albeit this would have been against lower level players in each case. His XFL run defense grades were poor according to Pro Football Focus. He has worked on his strength and managed to get upfield to affect some outside runs.
He has the speed to shoot gaps and is disciplined enough to stay at home and clean up on the backside.
Taumoepenu has quick feet and moves well laterally with good balance against the run and in space.
Although he’s regarded as a pure speed rusher off the edge, he does show an ability to set up his man for an inside spin move which he executes well.
As noted, he’s not great at getting off blocks, but can create separation when he can prevent the offensive lineman from getting his hands on him.
Taumoepenu has a lot of traits that could make him an excellent special teamer and had this big highlight when in San Francisco.
At the NFL level, he’s seen action on special teams in the regular season, mainly blocking on the kick return unit and covering kickoffs. He’s also rushed kicks a little.
He had two special teams tackles in regular season action at the NFL level and three more in preseason. He also had four in 10 games in the XFL.
Taumoepenu’s short arms are perhaps a factor in how many tackles he misses. He will often duck his shoulder into a tackle or let a ball carrier slip out of his grasp.
Another factor is perhaps that he’s spent so much time rushing quarterbacks who might not see him coming or perhaps aren’t that mobile or elusive that he just lacks experience of tackling in a more conventional setting.
Taumoepenu also doesn’t always pack a clean punch when stopping a ball carrier and can be driven or dragged for extra yards at the end of a run.
Taumoepenu is not the kind of player you’d put into a direct coverage matchup but he’s occasionally been asked to drop back and into a shallow zone. He can be a step slow to react and lack awareness in this role, within which he lacks experience.
He has had a few plays where he dropped off and made the tackle to limit an underneath pass to a short gain.
He batted down one pass at the line during the XFL season but this wasn’t something he has done at the college or NFL level.
Although he was a latecomer to the game, Taumoepenu shows good awareness when rushing the passer and keeps his eyes up in the trenches.
With his limited toolbox as he entered the league, there was some suggestion he lacked a plan when rushing the passer, but he’s really shown improvement in terms of his ability to set up and execute inside counters.
Here’s some good recognition against the run, as he sprints outside to ensure he has outside leverage to ensure the runner is forced back into traffic, then makes the play himself anyway.
Taumoepenu jumped offside once in the 2016 season but hasn’t had any defensive penalties at the NFL level or in the XFL.
He was an honorable mention all-big 12 academic selection back in his freshman year at Utah.
Taumoepenu’s incredible story speaks to his relentless work ethic, which was formed when working on the farm as a youngster. He was determined to make a success out of himself in football, with family as his motivating factor.
He had one roughing the passer penalty in his final year at Utah but just six penalties in three years there and none since so his on-field discipline is good.
Taumoepenu has been on practice squads or a healthy scratch for much of his career but hasn’t missed time due to injuries very often. He went onto injured reserve with a hamstring injury in preseason in 2019 and missed time with an ankle injury in preseason as a rookie. He also spent time on Covid-19 reserve in 2020.
Taumoepenu played for Robert Saleh at San Francisco and Jeff Ulbrich in Atlanta so the Jets already have plenty of idea about what he’s capable of and he should have some familiarity with the system.
His most likely role if he were to contribute with the Jets would be as a pass rush specialist, although there is plenty of competition for that role with Bryce Huff, Will McDonald and Jermaine Johnson all staking a claim to reps in those third down packages.
Taumoepenu, who was a college teammate of Javelin Guidry and Bradlee Anae, has also played with several current Jets over the course of his NFL career. He played with DJ Reed, Solomon Thomas and Laken Tomlinson in San Francisco, Duane Brown, Al Woods and Quinton Jefferson in Seattle and Marquis Spencer and Damarea Crockett in Denver. He was also briefly a teammate of fellow ex-XFL player Bruce Hector in Arizona.
The main reason for bringing Taumoepenu aboard in the short-term is obvious. After the first preseason game, the Jets realized they don’t have enough edge defenders because they were forced to play guys like Micheal Clemons, Bryce Huff and Will McDonald later into the game than they would have liked.
Bringing Taumoepenu aboard gives them someone who can handle those second half reps and also gives Taumoepenu himself a terrific opportunity to put some things on film against NFL talent.
His XFL performance did open some eyes, and there will be genuine interest around the league in whether he has more to offer at the NFL level. The Jets could ultimately try and put him onto their practice squad if he has a good preseason but it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see him get claimed or poached if they do.